A Colonial Christmas

Join us at Colonial Michilimackinac for a taste of the holidays in the 18th century. From the first Christmas services in Mackinac recorded by Jesuits to later British and French-Canadian traditions, the Colonial Christmas at Michilimackinac gives visitors the rare chance to step inside the fort during the winter months to experience how people celebrated the holidays over two centuries ago. Festive treats, stories, and music, as well as hot drinks and crackling fires on the hearths, will be scattered around the candle-lit site for you to explore and enjoy. We hope you’ll join us for the Colonial Christmas at Michilimackinac! #thisismackinac

Autumn Berries of the North Woods

“On the 20th of September [1835] the snow fell one inch, with quite a severe frost. The bushes were still loaded with whortleberries.”   – Benjamin O. Williams

In late September 1835, Lieutenant Benjamin Poole was completing an arduous months-long survey for the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. His crew’s mission was to survey a proposed military road from Saginaw to Mackinac, with a terminus at Dousman’s Saw Mill (now Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park).

Lowbush Blueberry

Poole’s survey crew was guided by brothers Benjamin O. and Alpheus F. Williams on a route “through a trackless wilderness nearly two hundred miles in extent, about which nothing was known, but that it presented obstacles of an unusually formidable character.” In short, the crew encountered long stretches of cedar swamps, shaking bogs, and alder thickets, ran out of provisions, and nearly starved. In his official report, written at Detroit on September 30, 1835, Poole admitted, “The assistants were frequently employed for days, and even weeks, in creeping through thickets and windfalls, where walking was quite out of the question.”

Much of what isn’t included in the official report was later recalled by B.O. Williams in a vivid account read before the Michigan Pioneer Society in February 1878. He wrote, “The density of some portions of the spruce, fir, and cedar lands exceeded any tropical forest I have ever seen…” His account follows their crew as they trek through the wilderness in moccasined feet, enduring swarms of gnats and mosquitoes, suffering illness and injury, and were saved from near starvation after stumbling upon “whortleberries [bilberries or blueberries] in great abundance.” Thankfully, shaking bogs and cedar swamps are excellent places to find many species of wild berries. Yet too much of a good thing caused a different digestive dilemma, as Williams noted, “eating whortleberries had affected some of the men unfavorably.”

As flowering plants bear fruit in early autumn, many species of wild berries ripen, each containing seeds to perpetuate a new generation of plants. While some berries are edible by people, others are inedible or even toxic to humans. Instead, most are best enjoyed with a photograph and left to the birds, squirrels, and other creatures of the north woods as they prepare to migrate south or endure the long, cold months of winter. The berries that follow were all photographed along the trails at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park.

Common Chokecherry

Bluebead Lily

Western Poison Ivy

Starry False Solomon’s Seal

Hawthorn

Staghorn Sumac

Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Riverbank Grape

Wild Rose

Common False Solomon’s Seal

Canada Mayflower

White Baneberry (Doll’s Eyes)

What’s in the basement?

For more than 20 years, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse has been restored to its 1910s glory. In that time numerous exhibits, galleries, and tours have been added to the experience, and, just last year, the second floor of the house was opened for the first time in its history. However, we still get one question more than the others: what’s in the basement? Chief Curator Craig Wilson takes us into the basement to show us what’s there:

Let’s Talk Dirt: The Science of 18th Century Laundry

Clean clothes mattered to people in the 18th century, so much so that some women made a career out of doing other peoples’ laundry. Join us for this exciting program about the soapy, sudsy science that helped people keep their clothes clean at Michilimackinac. Admission by donation. #thisismackinac

Michilimackinac Archaeology 2021 Wrap-Up

Southeast root cellar. This image shows the cellar shortly before completion. Only a gray circular area of cultural deposit, probably a postmold, and remnants of the south wall remain. 

  The 2021 Michilimackinac field season came to a satisfying end in late August. After seven seasons of excavation, we have finally reached the bottom of the southeast root cellar! The cellar was first tentatively identified in 2015. Since that time remnants of the north, west and south walls have been exposed and excavated along with a wide variety of interesting artifacts. More cellar deposit and the east wall are still present in the east profile and extending into the area of the House D excavation where the cellar was identified, but not excavated.

Central cellar. The dark soil surrounded by lighter sand is the central cellar. Six posts are now visible along the eastern edge of the cellar, two on the south, three on the west, and one on the north.

  The central cellar, on the other hand, became better defined and shows no sign of ending. It continued to yield trade goods, such as hawk bells, and structural artifacts, such as a hinge.

  A second new square was opened in the north row of squares where we eventually expect to find evidence of the north wall of the house. Both squares opened this summer are now down to the rubble layer created by the 1781 demolition of the fort.

  The newest square yielded the most interesting artifact of the second half of the season, a clear, circular intaglio set with Masonic symbols on it. The square and compass surrounding the letter G are easy to see. The surrounding symbols are not as legible but appear to include a trowel on the left. The set is .42” in diameter and could be from a linked button or a ring.

  While the lodge at Mackinac (St. John’s #15) was not established until 1784 on Mackinac Island, many of the soldiers and traders at Michilimackinac were members of lodges in Detroit or further east. Known Masons at Michilimackinac include: Major Robert Rogers, Lt. John Christie, Captain John Vattas, Lt. Robert Brooks, Lt. George Clowes, Surgeon’s Mate David Mitchell, Felix Graham, Benjamin Lyon, Forrest Oakes, David Rankin, and Ezekiel Solomon.

Masonic intaglio from a linked button or ring.

  This list is a starting point for possible owners of the intaglio. It could be a clue to the “British trader” who owned the house or could have been lost by a guest of his. It is particularly interesting to note that three other residents of the southeast rowhouse were Masons, Lt. Clowes (House A/B), Ezekiel Solomon (House C), and David Mitchell (House D).

The site is packed and waiting for spring.

  The 2021 field season was sponsored by Mackinac Associates, and we thank them for their generous support.

Chief Wawatam 110th Launching Anniversary

Frank Kirby

  Due to increased railroad traffic across the Straits of Mackinac, the Mackinac Transportation Company decided in 1910 that a new ferry needed to be built. The company had two ferries at the time, the St. Ignace, built in 1888, and the revolutionary Sainte Marie, completed in 1893. These vessels had been designed by noted Great Lakes naval architect Frank Kirby and he was asked to plan the new ship. The keel was laid on June 1, 1911 at the Toledo Shipbuilding Company of Toledo, Ohio as hull number 119. The ship was christened Chief Wawatam after an Ojibway Indian who befriended British fur trader Alexander Henry in the 1760s.

Captain Louis Boynton

  At 9:10 a.m. on August 26, 1911, the Chief Wawatam was side launched with no ceremony or traditional breaking of champagne on her bow. Charles Calder, part owner of the shipyard, recorded that it was a clear day and the launching proceeded with “not a scratch on her hull.” The ship was 338 feet long, 62 feet wide and had a draft of 20.7 feet. Built with a steel hull, she would be the largest and most powerful railroad ferry to serve the straits. She could carry 28 to 32 railroad cars depending on their size. The hull was taken to a fit-out dock where work was completed. The ship set sail for the straits on October 16, 1911 with Commodore Louis Boynton in command.

   The Chief was constructed with many unique features including three engines, two in the stern for propulsion and one in the bow for ice breaking. The bow propellor first appeared on the St. Ignace after Boynton successfully used two vessels tied bow to bow to break ice. The ship was one of the first to have electricity for lighting although lanterns continued to be carried as backup. In order to protect the open bow, the anchor was placed on the stern. Thus, the vessel could anchor stern-to during a storm preventing water from entering through the sea gate. For many years, the ship bore the words “U.S. Mail” on her bow as she carried letters and packages between the two peninsulas.

  The Chief Wawatam operated at the Straits of Mackinac until August of 1984 when the railroad pier in St. Ignace collapsed. The ship remained tied to the dock until 1988 when the State of Michigan, which owned the vessel, sold it to Purvis Marine Limited of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Prior to her departure, numerous objects, paper material and other items were selected and removed by Mackinac State Historic Parks staff. The plan was for the state park to store the collection until a transportation museum in St. Ignace could be built. Funding for the museum fell through and the state park continues to be the home for the collection. Objects including the ship’s steering wheel and engine room telegraph are on display in the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse.

Archaeology at Historic Mill Creek

Archaeology played a key role in the development of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park. After its rediscovery in 1972, excavations happened in 1973-75, 1979, and between 1984-1994. Join Curator of Archaeology Dr. Lynn Evans for a brief history of the site and its excavation, followed by a walking tour of the archaeological sites. Admission by donation. #thisismackinac

 

Where’s the Rum? Liquor and Soldiers at Michilimackinac

  A common question we hear at Michilimackinac concerns liquor being dispensed to soldiers. Pirate movies and other popular culture seem to suggest that every soldier in the 18th century received a regular issue of rum. The truth is a bit more complicated- liquor was issued and available to British soldiers at Michilimackinac, but only in specific circumstances.

  In many places where British troops were stationed, liquor was at least supposed to be issued to soldiers on a regular basis. When the Mutiny Act, which governed a variety of army administrative functions, was extended to cover the American colonies in 1765, it required every soldier to receive a daily allotment of beer, cider, or rum. These articles were to be provided by the government of whichever colony was quartering the soldiers. However, due to highly technical legal differences enshrined in British law, only soldiers quartered in private inns were allowed beer or rum. In British Canada, including Michilimackinac, soldiers were usually quartered in purpose-built barracks owned by the Crown, and as such were not entitled to a liquor ration. Rum and other liquors were never listed with provisions supplied to Michilimackinac and other Great Lakes posts, and soldiers could not expect a daily drink as part of their regular rations.

  Even though rum was not regularly issued, soldiers had access to liquor and other drinks through a variety of official and informal channels. Soldiers performing heavy labor, such as construction work or serving as boatmen, might be issued a special ration of rum in return for their extra exertions. In 1780, while his soldiers were heavily engaging in constructing a new fort on Mackinac Island, Lieutenant Governor Patrick Sinclair complained that the work was being held up “for want of working Cattle, Tools, the materials and Rum.” Soldiers could also be offered rum as a form of compensation. Earlier in the summer of 1780, a portion of the Michilimackinac garrison complained that they had not received their pay since August 1779. In lieu of money, Lt. George Clowes offered tobacco or rum, which the soldiers rejected. Of course, soldiers were also usually able to simply purchase liquor and other drinks on their own, using personal funds saved up from their wages. Rum and brandy arrived at Michilimackinac in huge quantities (2,155 kegs in 1778 alone) and were popular and important trade items, so they were readily available for purchase from the many civilian merchants operating at the post.

  Although soldiers may not have received official rum rations, Great Lakes sailors were another matter. Civilian sailors, such as those employed by John Askin in 1778, enjoyed a gill (one fourth of a pint, or four ounces) of rum a day, although Askin dictated that Pompey, an enslaved sailor, only receive half a gill. Sailors in government service also apparently received a regular rum ration. In 1783 a rum shortage caused considerable unrest among the British sailors working on the Great Lakes. At Detroit, Lieutenant Colonel Arent DePeyster complained that “we have not one drop of Rum in store here, the Naval Department begin to cry out.” General Allan MacLean, writing from Niagara, warned that “the seamen must have it [rum] for it’s part of their wages, and they will desert or mutiny if they do not get it.” To stave off desertions, MacLean ordered a small quantity of rum distributed from Niagara’s stores, but wrote to his superiors that it was almost impossible to replenish the garrison’s stocks of liquor. He declared that “I have more Plague with Rum than all the Business I have to do” and believed that “it’s a Pity that such a cursed Liquor ever had been found out.”

  While rum isn’t issued to our historical interpreters today, it was clearly an important item at Michilimackinac historically (especially for sailors). If you would like to learn more about trade on the Great Lakes, the British military at Michilimackinac, or the role of liquor in the fur trade, come visit us at Colonial Michilimackinac. Check out our website for tickets and more information.